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What Should People Understand About Computers?

Cliff posted more than 8 years ago | from the correct-the-misconceptions dept.

Books 962

counterexample asks: "It seems to me that there aren't very many good books out there that explain to the layman what is really going on with computers. My mother cannot go to the bookstore and pick up a book that will make her understand the strange language that we IT people speak, or why her computer would be susceptible to a virus. So, I intend to write such a book. I have a fair idea of what should be in it (history of the Internet, how computers talk to each other, what a hard drive does, etc.), but I'm interested to see what you all have to say. What do you wish your users knew? What kind of questions are you so sick of answering because you hear them every week? What does the general public think they understand, but really don't?"

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962 comments

More like where do you draw the line? (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493123)

My ancestors (parents and grandparents) are a naturally inquisitive people. Any attempt to teach them things about computers may only leave them more confused and full of questions.

You are about to undertake a Herculean task in that you are now required to omit certain things which we may all know. I think your strategy should concentrate on figuring out how simply you can describe something without causing more confusion and questions.

I would suggest analyzing The New Way Things Work [houghtonmifflinbooks.com] by David Macaulay because he does a good job at using simple illustrations and brought me up to speed on a lot of engineering ideas when I was only in fifth grade. I would try to mimic him and use his level of detail as a template into what the common person is ready to ingest.

Perhaps you should also change your strategy from "What do I include?" to "Where do I draw the line?" Start with a computer and describe the monitor, mouse, keyboard, box, printer, etc. in a high level. These are the obvious things you see. Then you can take and chapter by chapter explain each component down to as much detail as you want to. I would then have a chapter on communications and the internet that doesn't go all the way down to protocols.

Allow me to illustrate what kind of people you should aim this book at in this telephone call between me and my mother:

Me: Ok, tell me what the screen says now.
Mom: It's blue.
Me: What do you mean "it's blue"? What does it say?
Mom: It says, "9F D8 34 7B ..."
Me: Um, that's ok, ma, I don't speak hex.
Mom: "... FA 25 3C A2 ..."

One more thing, I shudder at the possibility of the history of computers being taught to my parents. This is more information that isn't really pertinent to what a layperson needs to know about computers. I would suggest delving into this as little as possible but historical facts always make reading interesting if you want to include little side notes.

As with most projects undertaken--keep it simple, stupid!

Re:More like where do you draw the line? (5, Funny)

Rei (128717) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493348)

People need to understand that computers are magical boxes that run on white smoke and fairy dust. Never, ever open your computer, or even risk hooking new devices up to it; you might cause the spell to fail. Understanding how it works is of course beyond any normal mortal; computer geeks are a different breed of human utterly different than you or I.

All software installed on the computer when you get it is part of a complex enchantment; to attempt to remove any bundled software or to even look at configuration options is to destroy the enchantments and render your computer a worthless heap of metal.

The internet is an evil place where every website is either a lie or an attempt to lure children to molesters. Of course, email from your friends is always safe - after all, your friends would never send you a malicious file.

After they know about computer internals... (4, Interesting)

towaz (445789) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493126)

How about... Norton internet security and Mcafee will cause them more problems then they fix. Windows XP firewall and a free virus checker like AVG will save them a lot of grief. A good spyware program (how I wish pack.google.com did not include norton) like ad-aware or spybot and how to use it, anyone offering you a million pounds over email are scammers.
Stop using the web for free porn and crack sites (mostly if using ie) firefox and thunderbird replace the normal xp offerings well. You don't need a computer that is all singing and dancing just to use word and msn, or just buy a mac.
Buying a centrino laptop doesn't give you magic access to the internet (legally), stop plugging in usb stuff without the drivers first; erm, and the cdrom is not a damn cup holder!
use linux, openoffice ect...

Re:After they know about computer internals... (1)

gid13 (620803) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493279)

Free porn and crack sites can be used if you know what you're doing, but if you don't AT THE VERY LEAST know how to format and reinstall Windows it's not worth the risk.

Adding to your singing and dancing comment, for the love of God stay away from any programs offering emoticons, custom cursors, or anything else similar.

And much as I love Linux, I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone that the rest of your comment applies to. Well, maybe Ubuntu. :)

I got one (4, Funny)

TheRealMindChild (743925) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493127)

"What does the general public think they understand, but really don't?"

Women.

Sadly... (1)

StressGuy (472374) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493194)

I think "general public" includes women themselves....

{...boy am I in trouble now...}

Re:Sadly... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493347)

I would agree. Woman don't know themselves most of the time.
This is what happens when listening to a woman gossip about there life, and very common questions I hear but dare never to answer.
like ...
Q: Where are all the nice guys?
A: There are a lot of nice guys, but because they are nice they are not going to come up to you in the middle of the street and hit on, if you do meet the nice guy you tend to take his niceness for granted.

Woman go: Look are not that Important.
I go (to myself): Bull shit! All woman say that but you will always put more attention to the more attractive one then the less attractive one.

First thing's first (5, Funny)

voice_of_all_reason (926702) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493129)

Design a mechanical arm that comes out from between the pages and stabs the reader in the face every time they confuse "memory" with "disk space." You'll be doing us all a great service.

Re:First thing's first (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493193)

Now that would be handy! I don't know how many times I told someone that the game/application they are trying to run isn't doing so well because they don't have enough memory, and their response is "But I'm only using 8 gigs out of my 120gig hard drive!"

Re:First thing's first (2, Interesting)

LiquidCoooled (634315) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493250)

I've given up with that particular battle.
Use it in context, when the user says "my computer has 40 giga bites of memory" I automatically replace with drive space.

I can understand the general publics lack of understanding regarding computers, but its people in the industry that piss me off more.

Case in point, one of my colleagues (developerish) was really baffled why the computer had 248mb of memory and assumed some sort of none standard memory stick.

Don't have to (0, Flamebait)

biocute (936687) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493133)

Normal computer users do not have to understand what is really going on with computers, they are simply -- users. Like users of washing machines, they don't need to know how the machine spins, or how many gallon of hot water to mix with cold one when how why.

So in layman's term, computer is an electronic appliance, you plug in the power, turn it on and use it.

If you own a Microsoft-branded machine, it usually comes with preset icons, DO NOT MOVE OR DELETE OR CHANGE THEM, just click on those icons to perform your daily task, like Outlook Express for email, Internet Explorer for web and online banking. When you're done, click on the START button to shutdown, it's like you need to open the front door in order to get out.

Remember, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT modify your appliance by adding, removing or changing any settings or program, this will void your warranty. You don't simply add a 12-hour timer in your washing machine, you just use the 3-hour and 6-hour options built into the machine.

Viruses may attempt to enter and destroy your appliance by asking you if you want to install such-and-such program. It's like your husband asking if he can put his red shirt in a load of white washings, and the answer is always NO. Saying yes to anything that changes your appliance in any way will void your warranty, which includes installation, modification and uninstallation.

If you really need to do something risky, such as visiting a new website, try getting a program named FireFox. It's like when you're washing your new $500 bra for the first time, you use a bra net. You may continue to use the bra net every time if you want to.

A factory-default (that is, unmodified) machine will usually do what we call self-maintenance, like a self-cleaning process in some washing machines. You may notice your appliance being busy for a while, then tells you your appliance has been updated, which is good.

Hardly (2, Insightful)

bobdickgus (938017) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493242)

If a computer was an appliance like a washing machine they would have been recalled due to faults. You would never except the bugs you do with a computer with an item of white ware.

ipods, cellphones, TiVO, etc (2, Insightful)

peter303 (12292) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493318)

When the "computer as an appliance" becomes hidden behind an applied interface, then it ceases being called a computer. Ipods, cellphones, TiVo, etc. have more hardware and software than gneral computers more than 5-10 years ago. But the "computerness" is somewhat hidden in the appliance.

Re:Don't have to (1)

eratosthene (605331) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493327)

<rant>
Okay, I'm really sick of hearing people compare computers to consumer appliances. That comparison right there is IMHO directly responsible for most of the problems with computers nowadays. If people would stop looking at a computer like it's just a big black box that does magic stuff, and maybe stop to understand things just a little bit, probably 90% of spyware and popup ads would cease to be effective. I'm not advocating that Grandma needs to know commandline stuff or anything, but one thing that would help a lot of people out tremendously is simply to understand three things: 1) the notion of what an application is; 2) the difference between a web page and an application; and 3) a basic understanding of the file system. If users could look at a popup and notice that it has that little title bar up on top, they would realize that it's a web page rather than a real system-message-type-thing. And if users could understand the *VERY* simple layout of a file system (cmon, it works EXACTLY like a filing cabinet, what exactly is so confusing?), they might not lose their files all the time and other such nonsense.
</rant>

Know how to drive but not where they are. (5, Insightful)

jellomizer (103300) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493136)

The biggest problem I tend to face is that people don't know where the hardware ends, and where the OS Begins and where the OS Ends and the Applications begins. When they are doing something over the network or locally. They are just completely lost on the system. It it like they know how to drive but they don't know where they are now.

They will always blame the wrong part for their problems.

My Computer is Broken! When When MS Word fails to open.
Windows Sucks! When the system wont Boot because the computer hardware failed.
The Internet Is Down! When Windows somehow lost all its drives and fails boot.
My Computer is slow, I need a faster one! When there are 1000s of spyware apps running

What people need to know is what part of the computer does what type of job and how to at least say where the problem is.

They should know when the Harddrive is clicking away or when sending information over the network.

Re:Know how to drive but not where they are. (2, Insightful)

hackstraw (262471) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493332)

The biggest problem I tend to face is that people don't know where the hardware ends, and where the OS Begins and where the OS Ends and the Applications begins. When they are doing something over the network or locally. They are just completely lost on the system.

That is so true. And the reason is to us is that we don't know where to start to fix their problem. My mother actually calls everything she sees on the screen as "Microsoft". Scary.

I don't know how to fix the problem. I mean, most people have no clue what "software" really is.

Man, I've been brainstorming lately.

I was a kid of the 70s and 80s and we had these cool Atari games that came in cartridges. I liked that model for some reason.

If software for new computers come in a cartridge it would solve many things.

1) piracy will basically stop, yes, ubergeeks will still do it, but everyday normal people won't. In fact, if you run a program at work or with your friends without inserting a cartridge, then they will know instantly that you did not pay for it.

2) It will isolate the app from the OS and other apps.

This does not scale too well for little programs. But I'm talking about expensive larger apps that you would only typically need at most 5. More on average 1.

Think about how easy upgrades would be? Throw away or sell old cartridge and insert a new one. Expensive software is coming with hardware dongles already. Why does the program have to live on my harddrive too? Why is it so hard to run the program I paid for on another computer?

For Dummies (2, Informative)

debianlinux (548082) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493138)

It may not have been updated but I read a book of the "For Dummies" variety several years ago that covered exactly the material you describe. I was reading it from an already very advanced POV, too.

Memory != Storage Space (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493144)

Memory has nothing to do with long term storage. Increasing memory does not give you the ability to store more files.

essentials (1)

BushCheney08 (917605) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493147)

Be sure to have a chapter dedicated to the on/off switch on both the main case and the monitor (hell, that might be two chapters right there). A chapter on when a cup holder isn't a cup holder. And don't forget the chapter on magic smoke. Covering those things should take all the mystery out of computers...

What Should People Understand About Computers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493156)

That I deserve a lot of cash for operating one, and that they have no hope of ever figuring them out.

(partly joking)

Everyone ought to know about Alan Turing (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493157)

Alan Turing is a visionary, a hero, and a flawed man just like the rest of us.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, ought to know about this wonderful guy
that changed our history forever.

Look in your glove box. (4, Insightful)

StressGuy (472374) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493158)

Assuming that's where you keep the manual for you car. All you really need to know about your car is how to operate it and how to take care of it (what kind of fuel, when to change the oil, belts, plugs, etc.). It's not really necessary to know much about how a car works to be able to properly use it. Such information is available to those who want to know, but it's not necessary to know the Brayton Cycle for example, to operate a car.

I would suggest that this be your state of mind when writing your computer manual. I.e. focus on how to use it and how to take care of it.

Re:Look in your glove box. (1)

peragrin (659227) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493344)

Um That explains a lot. The Manual to your car doesn't tell you how to drive though. It doesn't say which side of the road to travel. It doesn't tell you about various traffic laws and what they mean.

You still need to know how to drive safely. It isn't simple for most people. So How about a license that people have to get before they are allowed to use a computer connected to the Internet? No Information needs to be free.

Not so much a content suggestion... (3, Interesting)

sterno (16320) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493159)

But I was thinking about how such a book should be structured. It occurs to me that there's a lot of stuff that a person might like to know but might not need to know. And so I'm thinking the book should begin with an explanation of what's right in front of them. What each object on their desk does, how they relate to eachother, and the basics of how to interact with all of them.

Then from there, the next sections would go one step beyond that. So the first part would be to talk about what the computer is, then the second part would talk about how memory works, etc. So at any point if the person gets spooked by any of it they can just stop where they are and have a good amount of knowledge. Make it easy for it to be a gentle progression.

computer fact #01 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493160)

the CD drive is NOT a cupholder.

kthxlol

Re:computer fact #01 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493264)

I was gonna post that, dammit.

Thanks for ruining my day.

computer fact #02 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493269)

The mouse is NOT a footpedal.

lost cause! :P (2, Insightful)

Klanglor (704779) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493163)

i say its a lost cause, there is soo much 101 book about computer. if u can't explain it to your mom. don't expect any book to be able to.

People tend to learn on a step by step basis depending on the interest in any specific subject.

meaning if i am interested in learning quantum science. no mather how hard it is, I will keep on trying. well if i don't fell the need for it, i will give up and say its non sense.

So just grab your latest for dummie book and hand it over to your mom. If she REALLY wants to understand then she will learn.

Just give up, if you are just trying to force knowledge into her mind, its a lost cause ;p

What kind of questions are you so sick of answern? (3, Insightful)

lilmouse (310335) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493166)

What kind of questions are you so sick of answering because you hear them every week?
It's broke - fix it!

I think that's the wrong approach - it's like asking a calc TA what questions he got asked most during the term. How do I do problem #3 isn't terribly useful to put in a book - next year they'll have to know how to do problem #4. So it goes with computers. Many questions can be "answered" without giving any real insight to the end reader/user. Be careful - you have to teach basics :)

That said...

I remember having to go through contortions to explain the concept of a "file" and "directory" to my mom. Just how technical *do* you get? "Any file is just a bunch of data" can be a bit confusing...

--LWM

Try showing her an online source of help. (1)

gasmonso (929871) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493167)

While I find books quite useful for learning about coding and such, many other non-technical people might find it more useful to use an online resource like http://computer.howstuffworks.com/ [howstuffworks.com]

There are plenty of visual aids and easy to follow diagrams. Give that a shot and see if it helps or inspires your book.

http://religiousfreaks.com/ [religiousfreaks.com]

Everything that I learned on /. (2, Interesting)

IAAP (937607) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493168)

Do not log in as admin

Have other accounts besides owner or User

Use Firefox

Use Firebird

Use AVG Free

Try not to use Windows :-)

When in doubt-be paraniod!

start with the basics (1)

Broadcatch (100226) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493173)

  • What is a computer? (hardware: memory, disk, screen, keyboard, ...)
  • What is an operating system? (file, directory management, task switching, ...)
    • Examples: windows, mac, linux
  • What is an application? (mail, text editing, web browsing, ...)
    • Examples: Outlook, Word, Firefox

No dooms day device (1)

stecoop (759508) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493175)

Even if you are running MS Windows, no matter what you do to the computer, it will not blow up. Yeah yeah, I ran X back in the day when you could burst a monitor into flames with the wrong refresh rate but those days are mostly gone. So look at all the options under everymenu and read a whole lot to understand what you are looking at.

Why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493176)

Maing them understand the underpinnings is a waste of time.

Tell them what they need to know. About anti-virus tools, anti-spyware tools and things to avoid.

You expect people to actually read this thing? (1)

mankey wanker (673345) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493177)

What a joke. The main reason some of us even make a living at all is the flat out refusal of most people to read a manual.

Good luck with your book, you're going to need it...

"Where Stuff Is" (1)

P3NIS_CLEAVER (860022) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493179)

The hardest concept for many beginners is understanding where stuff is, and how to get to it. Understanding the difference between memory and hard disk, and things on the internet. Maybe if your mom understood that you never want anything on the internet on her hard drive, she wouldnt install spyware on it.

Proprietary Design (2, Insightful)

Codename46 (889058) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493182)

Most people don't understand the facts about the proprietary designs many brand-name PC's use. A lot of proprietary PC's are hard to service and a pain to upgrade. They should be informed of the brands that are proprietary like Dell, their proprietary advantages/disadvantage, and the brands that aren't proprietary like PowerSpec, and their advantages. I'm a salesman at Micro Center, and almost every customer whom I sold a computer to didn't know what proprietary design meant and what brands are proprietary. Those are the one who usually buy Compaq, HP, Gateway, and Dell-brand PC's and end up leaving with a PowerSpec computer and liking it because its easily upgradable and serviceable.

What should people understand about computers? (1)

maynard (3337) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493185)

That a computer is no more than a pocket calculator with a memory to store what buttons one would have pushed, the results from that calculation, and branching instructions to deal with special cases. Everything else is just window dressing.

won't work (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493187)

There are millions of those books. The problem is never in people not understanding something. The problem is that you can not expect a layman to grok "at least the important bits" just as it is not possible for you to "at least diagnose cancer" when your not a doctor .
Such things simply take time and experience, and the completely inept will never learn.

The nature of the Internet (1)

Blue Neon Head (45388) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493196)

Most people don't have the slightest understanding of how the Internet works; for them, it is indistinguishable from magic. It would be nice if users understood how their machine fits into the Internet, how one computer communicates to another (at a high level, not necessarily the gritty details), and precisely what sort of hazards that subjects them to (and doesn't subject them to - e.g. everything that goes wrong on your machine is NOT necessarily the fault of a "virus").

Petzold (1)

LukePieStalker (746993) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493199)

Charles Petzold has already covered this ground, at least the software part of it, pretty well for the general reader in his book "Code" [microsoft.com].

Computer Suck (1)

stavromueller (934803) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493205)

In direct response to the title, that computers suck and one should stay as far away as possible from them because they will ruin your life.

OCR (1)

sckeener (137243) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493208)

I do not know how many times I have to tell an attorney that they can not edit the text of a scanned picture by just typing over it.

They do not understand that if they want to edit the document they need to OCR the document.

Then there are the Attorney's that want me to call up Microsoft and get them to fix everything before they sue them.

Or how about the people that try to open documents or programs from inside other applications.

What they should understand (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493212)

People should know: Using a computer requires a person to make decisions. Making decisions requires a person to be informed. To be informed means to not only read, but to comprehend on screen messages.

A person who is neither interested in being informed nor interested in making decisions, or one who doesn't have the werewithal to comprehend what he/she reads, will have a hard row to hoe when it comes time to reap the benefits of computer use. Sadly, this could describe a majority.

Stay in school kids. Learn to comprehend more than the nuiances of rap songs and street slang.

A Plea for Task-Based Organisation (5, Insightful)

Dunx (23729) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493217)

A request for the format of your book - organise the explanations by things people actually use their computers for.

- writing a letter: how a program starts, how different document formats work, how saving a file puts it onto the hard disc, how printing works

- looking something up on Google: how the internet works (good luck with that one!), how web sites work, how computers talk to each other over the internet, how firewalls work ... and so on. This kind of task-based organisation should make it easier for the lay person to understand what is going on because they can relate it to something real they actually do.

Computers are difficult (1)

seizer (16950) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493222)


It's not a very sales-friendly message, but: Mass manufactured desktop computers and software are pretty much a teenage technology, immature and truculent. They are not very robust internally and are full of bugs which will irritate you and potentially be unfixable because proprietary software can only be maintained by its creator. Computers and particularly software is designed by people who not only have little empathy with the average user, but have little inclination or time to fix any problems they may be aware of.

Computers are going to be difficult to start out with, and all users should expect this. The rewards, of course, are great: control and use of one of the most advanced technologies humankind has ever produced.

Umm? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493223)

What makes you think a layperson wants to know how a computer works?

Patience (2, Interesting)

pezak78 (946627) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493225)

Some where, like in the very beginning of this book, should be a simple statement, that you must have patience to use a computer.

Why not how. (1)

jellomizer (103300) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493229)

When using a computer I think people need to know why do I have to do it that way vs how do I do it that way.
For some beginners scroll bars are confusing when you hit the up button the Text goes down, and when you hit the down button it goes up. You need to explain to them is they are pretending that you are looking at the text like you look threw binoculars when you move them up it looks like the world is going down. Or the Desktop Folder interface scheme.

Explain that computer attacks are not personal (4, Insightful)

Mr. Sketch (111112) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493230)

Most people think that computer attacks/hack attempts are personal and thus think 'Nobody would want to hack MY computer'. Explain that these attacks are not personal and are often carried out automatically by an infected computer. Explain that there are only ~4Billion possible internet locations the computer can search and it will only take a few days for a computer to search all possible locations on the internet. Remind them that a computer can do over a billion things a second which is why it can search so many computers locations so quickly.

Simple ..... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493232)

Just enough to get them in trouble, so I have to fix their machine.

In this day and age, I need all the job security I can get. If that means users being 'click monkees'(TM), so be it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go delete the users' home volume, and restore it from last months: just out of spite.

Similar Idea (1)

Alex P Keaton in da (882660) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493236)

I actually wrote a book like that. My agent is currently shopping it around to publishers. What i did was, I used my parents, who are 60ish, and in my mind, perfect specimens. (My dad always had a secretary and NEVER used a computer) I am a technical writer, so I am used to writing processes at a third grade level linguistically, but I am not used to writing at a third grade level technically. The key to writing an intor text, from my experience, is to write it in such a way that you feel it is insulting to the reader in terms of the basicness. Believe me, I know- I have read physics books that the author likely couldn't believe that he/she was putting in such elementary things, when to me, a layperson, these ideas are complex. It is not easy to write for an audience with zero knowledge about a subject that you know a great deal about.

PC's for Dummies (1)

Perl-Pusher (555592) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493237)

I just lend people PC for Dummies [amazon.com]. I bought it for my mother, and it helped her a lot. I've lent this and a couple of other Dummies books for Office & Windows it usually keeps them from asking the really dumb questions. Except for one individual who has a notebook with written instructions on reading his email. Go to the email icon on the desktop, click twice etc., he is beyond all hope.

Starting from a flawed premise (5, Insightful)

Timesprout (579035) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493243)

Maybe most people are capable of understanding computers but most geeks are such shitty communicators they just cant explain things clearly enough, often because they just dont understand the subject well enough themselves half the time.

Good luck (0, Offtopic)

revery (456516) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493246)

I'd say you have no chance in hell of writing a single book that will tell people like your grandmother and my mom how computers work. A lot of it's bound up in information theory, and if you've never thought about it before, it's a lot like swallowing the red pill and waking up outside of the Matrix, because it legitimately touches on every aspect of your life.

Having said that, I do wish you luck. Maybe you have such pedagogical skill that I will be proven completely wrong.

Things I'd put in the book... (1)

lju (944654) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493248)

Things I'd like to see in a computer noob book:

  • The differences between "memory": RAM vs HDD vs CD/DVD, etc.
  • An explaination of data storage sizes and how they relate to one another (bits, bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, etc.)
  • Realizing the correct abbreviation to use, like the difference between MBps and Mbps.
  • Bandwidth vs clock speed, and why a faster computer might not be faster on the internet if you're still using a dial-up connection. Also vice versa how upgrading to a cable modem will not make a non networked app run any faster.
  • Ways to tell if you've been infected with spyware or other malware, and how to take steps to prevent/remove that threat.
  • Show that a firewall won't prevent all virus infections.
  • Discuss the importance of setting non-trivial account passwords, and changing the default admin passwords of all networked equipment.
  • Discuss basic wireless network security (WEP/WPA and MAC address filtering.)

Those are the things I'd include off the top of my head.

A succinct book on the subject (1)

c0ma (946629) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493252)

The book "Computer Science: An Overview" by J. Glenn Brookshear provides a good introduction to most aspects of computers and their use, without getting too technical or too vague. Some of the topics aren't really relevant to most users, and reading this book won't help most people know how to use their machine any more effectively. But for the person somewhat interested in what goes on in a computer and why, this book provides a solid grounding of what most computer people are talking about.

Using vs. Understanding (4, Insightful)

Schlemphfer (556732) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493255)

After reading your question it seems you haven't yet made a distinction between the two possible kinds of books you could write. One would be giving the reader a fundamental understanding of how computers work, while the other would be giving them the basic knowledge needed to become either a casual or power user.

These two books are completely different and you should know which one you're writing, and not mix things up.

I personally would love a book that explains the basics of how RAM, TCP/IP, USB ports etc. work -- written in a way that somebody with no engineering background can grasp. But from the tone of your question I think what you're really leaning towards writing is a book that lets brand new computer users bypass the clueless stage. For this, you'd want to explain the differences between OSX, Windows, and Linux, and give users a good way to choose. You'd want to acquaint them with the main sorts of applications that exist -- word processors, spread sheets, browsers, etc. Then you'd explain a bit about each, like what a word processor is great at doing (things like on-the-fly spellcheck), and what it sucks at doing (book quality layout.)

Basically, you want to teach people the fundamentals of using each type of application, and keep them from using a screwdriver as a hammer (using Microsoft Word to typeset a book, for instance.)

You'd also want to write about the various peripherals you can install, like wireless cards, optical mice, and high-quality video and sound cards.

And finally, you'd want to make the writing engaging enough that people would actually read your book cover to cover. That's the biggest trick of all, and really, the only hard trick.

What should people understand about computers? (1)

Decaff (42676) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493259)

I really wish that users understood that when something goes wrong, it stays wrong, and won't be fixed by trying the same thing a dozen times,

First and foremost... (1)

conan_the_trollarian (929617) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493260)

"I'm interested to see what you all have to say." Try to stat away from cowboy speak there partner (pun intended). I'm interested to see what all of you have to say. See? Simple. Now, onto what you can do. STOP WRITING. I have had more than one job in my life where my sole duty was to help people when they had problems using the computer. The bottom line, people are idiots. No matter how much you dumb it down for them, it will still fly over their heads faster than my 12 year old brother downloads porn. One time, I had a guy who was using word and needed to cut and paste something. I told him to right click the mouse button. He paused, looked at me, looked at the screen, paused, looked at me again, and then typed, in word, write click. This is what you are up against. Good luck.

PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD... (2, Insightful)

brunes69 (86786) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493262)

...Explain the difference between "memory" and "storage".

I can not even count the number of times I have said "your computer does not have enough memory for this" and gotten the reply "but it says I have 15 jig-a-bytes free, isn't that a lot?"

I think this problem is 99.9% the industry's fault for choosing the word "memory" to refer to something stored short-term (should have come up with some new word like 'zoigle'), but anyways...

the top three things (1)

sammy baby (14909) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493263)

Drawn from repeated conversations with family, the top three things that I wish novices knew:

1. Just because you saw it on the Internet doesn't make it true. This applies equally to politics, science, and "YOUR COMPUTER HAS BEEN INFECTED BY SPYWARE! CLICK HERE TO REMOVE!" (reference: my aunt, who spent about thirty bucks downloading sketchy looking "web accelerator" software because a popup told her that she needed it desperately.)

2. Messages/windows/random stuff which appears on your screen does so as a result of programs running on your computer. Sometimes they're from the operating system, sometimes from a program you launched, and sometimes from software which is trying to hide from you. Your first hint that something is wrong here will often be, "Huh. I wonder where that window came from?" (reference: the countless tech support calls I've had from people who failed to connect the porn adverts appearing from out of nowhere with the "one thousand cool smiley-faces in your email!!!!!" software they downloaded.)

3. It's surprisingly easy to render a computer completely inoperable. Back up your data accordingly, and make sure you have easy access to your install/rescue media. (reference: personal experience)

It's what they think they know that REALLY hurts (1)

un1xl0ser (575642) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493265)

I don't get fed up with a lack of knowldege of users. That would be like a mechanic getting fed up with me when I bring my car in. I get sick of when users they pretend that they know things. Explain the symptoms to me, then I determine what the problem is.

Once teacher in high school had a problem and asked me to run the anti-virus scanner. I did, then told him it was done. He then explained to me that he couldn't print, and that was the real problem. I looked and the printer was out of ink. I told him to buy some more ink.

My Granny (5, Funny)

turgid (580780) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493268)

When I was 8, I got a computer for Christmas. My granny said to me, "Ask it who the Prime Minister is!"

RAM (1)

IceCreamGuy (904648) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493277)

People need a good explanation of system latencies other than those pertaining to the processor speed; things like FSB speeds and the arrangements of devices off the north and south bridges. I feel like there's so much judgement passed on a system based on just that one aspect that people have no way of knowing what type of system they're buying or using. People need to start paying attention to RAM and FSB speeds as well as HDD and peripheral interfaces. They also need a good explanation of bit depth in different parts of a system. The average user doesn't know what the difference between a 24-bit and 16-bit souncard is, and they don't know how a 64-bit processor differs from a 32-bit one. I think a good book that explains these things in a simple, easy to understand fashion would be a great asset to the casual computer user/comsumer. (I'm not saying it will be easy to write though) :)
                                          -Julius

"Downloading" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493280)

Everyone who doesn't know a thing about computers uses the word "download" to mean any kind of data transfer from one piece of hardware to another. To my wife, for example, you "download" a pic to a server on the Internet. (To her I respond, "No, you UPLOAD it"). Or if I transfer a file from one of our computers to another, she still calls it "download". Or even if I install a program from a CD, my wife still calls it "downloading".

You know what I wish? (1)

iceT (68610) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493283)

I wish we could get royalties for developing the outline for your book.. that's what I wish..

What the computer IS. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493284)

Define that the monitor is not the computer, and the computer is not the monitor.

You're not alone; lots of engineers are behind you (1)

quibbler (175041) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493285)

A user isn't alone in their efforts to understand any modern technical system. In fact, there is an army of user-interface designers trying very hard to make this 'simple and straightforwards' to reduce the number of tech-support calls. Any computer, toaster, or VCR that's half-well-designed wants to be understood, if you'll forgive my personification.

So... Don't fight them! More often than not, people have assumed a machine/task is difficult long before making an attempt (and indirectly working with the army of engineers helping them).

A computer isn't what it does (1)

cretog8 (144589) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493291)

Generally, people who don't want to get into a device think about the device as it's function. A dishwasher is a machine which washes dishes, and most people won't think very hard about how the motors and pumps and timers work. A car is a machine which takes you and your stuff from here to there, etc. Form follows function, and a car is designed to take you from here to there reasonably safely and comfortably.

The problem is that a computer *isn't* like this, at least not for most people, not yet. A computer may be the machine you use to check your email or browse the web, but that's really not what it *is*. A computer isn't designed to browse the web, it's designed to run software. Some of that software includes web browsers.

I think that's a big part of why people have trouble with computers. They want to know, "why doesn't my computer just *work*?" And the answer is that it's really hard to even say what that means for a computer. It's a general-purpose device. Companies which sell systems sometimes try to package the computer as an appliance with some finite number of functions, but without making the whole thing run off ROM and denying the user the chance to do new fun stuff, it's really not an appliance.

My thoughts (1)

digidave (259925) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493293)

"history of the Internet, how computers talk to each other, what a hard drive does, etc."

I think you should skip most of that. At least keep them extraordinarily brief. History of the Internet shouldn't be more than two sentences. How computers talk should be about one sentence explaining that it's exactly like how people talk on telephones, but computers use computer sounds instead of voices. A hard drive is a file cabinet where your computer stores documents.

Any more complicated than that and your book won't be any better than existing books. Few new computer users even care about that sort of thing, so get it out of the way in "additional information" bubbles or something like that.

You need to provide the content that techies normally answer for their families:

1. How do I attach a photo to an email (provide examples in Outlook, Outlook Express, Hotmail, Thunderbird, etc).

2. What are viruses and how can I stop them? Explain a virus in terms of a biological virus that humans get. Some are like colds that go away and others are like cancer that kill your computer. Provide a link to AVG Free with screen captures detailing how to keep it updated.

3. Installing new computer accessories. Everybody buys a digital camera or a printer that comes with a CD. Explain the steps involved for setting up most printers and digital cameras. Show exactly what a USB cable and port looks like as well as a serial cable and port. Most beginners do not know this and many are afraid to plug anything into their computers. Tell them that making a mistake won't harm their computer because cables can't fit where they don't belong.

4. Direct people to places where they can get good free software for things such as creating calendars and photo albums.

5. Keep your book directed at Windows users. Even if you love Macs it's too hard to provide this information about more than one OS without confusing readers who only know their computer is a Dell. You'll need to instruct them how to tell which email client they have, what the icon looks like, etc.

6. Show people how to clean up their desktop by deleting unused icons. Windows sort of does this, but not in an intuitive way. Many beginners and even intermediate users won't delete icons from their desktop and have trouble finding things because of it.

I'm sure I could think of more. I gave my mom an Ubuntu Linux PC in August for her birthday. She's 65 and it's the first computer she's ever used. She has never once asked me how the Net works or about the history of computers. She just wants to send email, look at digital photos she takes and send them to people. Other than for Gmail she doesn't really use the Net at all.

It might be a good idea to separate your book into beginner and advanced topics. Beginner topics discuss how to do basic things like attaching photos to email while advanced topics can include creating online photo albums for family, removing red eye from photos, etc.

filesystem (2, Interesting)

danielDamage (838401) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493299)

I teach a basic web development class, and my students often have a spotty understanding of computers in general.

The one foundational skill that I think cripples computers users, is the understanding of the filesystem. I think the most common source of confusion with computers is "where did it go? it was just here!".

People download and save files to the default location, and then hope it's in "My Documents" somewhere. But they don't know how to navigate to "My Documents" (C:\Documents and Settings\Username\My Documents). When people understand it's a tree and how to find it's trunk, their eyes light up with sheer user power.

Oblig. Simpsons (5, Funny)

truthsearch (249536) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493301)

Homer: Now then... computer.. kill Flanders!
Ned: Did I hear my name? My ears are burning!
Homer: [whispering to mouse] That's a good start, now finish the job!
Ned: Oh, you're busy. Catch you later, compu-tator!
Homer: Oh, five thousand dollars for a computer and it can't even handle a simple assignment!

Zen and the art of microcode (4, Funny)

0xABADC0DA (867955) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493305)

Page 1: reference list of book opcodes
Page 2: program to produce page 2 text ...
Page N: md5 sums of pages 2-N used to check for possible reading comprehension problems
Epilogue: "Now grasshopper is one with computer."

Now that's a book that will let them know what computers are all about.

Above all ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493306)

Computers are dumb objects.

Let me explain that. During the course of my studies for my degree, I found out *what* computers are made of and how they do what they do. Just electrons falling through metal ... a big-ass path of "decisions". That's all.

People need to at least understand it's not a magic box ... there is no "thinking" the box does on its own.

Audience (1)

black_shadow201 (863778) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493309)

Remember, before writting, know your audience. Who is this book going to be tailored too? 40+ people with little or no knowledge of computers, 8-14 year olds who want to learn the in's and out's of a computer (possibly future /. readers), the list goes on. I know when I was young, I learned computer hardware by playing with old machines, but not everyone learns like that. So a simplistic detailed book may be good for them. On the other hand, my parents need a step-by-step instruction on how to do anything on a computer. So they might was a book that has a list of step-by-step instructions on how to do some simple and some not so simple tasks. Just my opinion....

50 percent of gross sells (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493310)

okay, you want us to help you write a book for the layman so that you can claim it as yours!! I want 50 percent of gross sells before giving you advise.

One simple request by a tech-support agent... (1)

Sr. Pato (900333) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493312)

What Should People Understand About Computers?

All I ask is that people read Windows XP for Dummies or the equivalent for their OS before actually going out and purchasing a computer. Yes, they are, for the most part easy to use, but so are cars... though you're required to get a license for a reason. Don't buy a frick'n computer if you don't even know how to run an installer program to walk you through setting up your Anti-Virus. If you want to learn and don't know anything yet, that's fine... then learn. Don't call your ISP when Internet Explorer keeps crashing and asks you to send an error report.

Dont kick it... (1)

maxzilla (786061) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493315)

include a bit about basic maintanance. I'd say 50% of all my jobs are due to user caused damage (kicking the machine, pulling cables out roughly, bent pins) include a bit about care and maintanace!

Systems requirements vs actual system (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493317)

I constantly get calls, "I can't play this game/load this software."
Tell people how to check thier proc. speed (also helps ebay fraud).
Tell people hot to check thier memory (vs. hard drive, see above posts).
How to read the bottom of the box thier software came with BEFORE they purchase.
Real world example: Microsofts latest flight simulater will not work on an 800 Mhz machine even after buying that Radeon 9600, removing 2000 for windows XP and upgrading to 512 ram. Expensive lesson. $5-$600 bucks later, you realize you could have overnighted a brand new Dell to fix your problem for $350.

Ideally they should need to know nothing. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#14493323)

Do your parents need to understand Electrodynamics to use a toaster?
Do they need to know how to set the timing on an internal combustion engine to drive?

The point is that unless you are on the engineering side or on the repair side you need only limited knowledge.
What's needed is not a book to teach the basics, but a book which can provide linkage to bits of information that are needed.

Tell them not to throw out words just cuz... (1)

FrontalLobe (897758) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493329)

I think what you really need to tell people is not to assume things. Its been mentioned memory!=disk space and cpu!=the whole system...

Tell them to take a deep breath, and admit they do not understand this stuff. When asking for help, ask "I need more space for music, what can I do?" and not "If I upgrade my memory, can I store more music?"

Obvious stuff for normal people of course. (1)

dascandy (869781) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493341)

> What does the general public think they understand, but really don't?"

That's the main question in this thing, and that's what the book shouldn't be aimed at. These things change over time so if you write them in, your book is as dated as "Learn yourself Windows 3.11 in 24 hours".

Stuff they think they know:
Every computer runs Windows.
Everybody can install the drivers that come with the hardware, that's what they're for right?
All stuff in shops works in Windows on a PC.
When your computer slows down it's natural and you just need to reinstall.
Computer hackers destroy computers and are only bad guys.
Programming is very hard, near impossible.
When Windows fails you call out your nearest computer nerd and tell him to fix it. Every computer nerd claims to know a computer, so he should at least know how to fix Windows.
Rebooting is considered a way of fixing stuff.
Microsoft file formats are accessible for everybody.
Computer software is only decent if you have to pay for it, but you shouldn't pay but get it off the intarweb, that's cheaper.
Flash websites are better than XHTML websites.

You know, stuff that would make you ignore somebody instead of answering them.

It's not a Virus! (1)

Denagoth (582705) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493342)

Every user I've ever met whose 2+ year-old Windows installation is limping along because of (1) all of the crap they've loaded on their system and (2) all of the "patches" that Micro$oft has courteously given them SWEARS their problem is a virus. Actually, anytime anything goes wrong, the average user guesses "virus!". The fact of the matter is that computers require MAINTENANCE and CARE just like anyother system. That means re-loading a Windoze OS every 2 years, removing lost files (.chk or lost+found), defragmenting, cleaning off spyware, etc.

Simple Rules (1)

Billosaur (927319) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493343)

  1. Email - Don't open email from people you don't know or addresses you don't recognize; if you do recognize them, read them thoroughly first and do not click on anything in the email until you are sure it is actually from the sender and not a virus sent from their address book. If you're not sure, send them an email (do not forward!) asking them if they sent it.
  2. IMs - See Email
  3. Don't try this at home Unless you're knowledgeable about these things, do not try to set up firewalls, home networks, etc. without assistance. Find someone who knows these things.
  4. Bad people will try to attack you - Set your virus scanner to automatically update your definitions daily. Install a firewall. Don't buy online except from well-known and trusted sources. Get, use, and update anti-spyware.
  5. Keep up to date on events in cyberspace - visit computer news sites, Slashdot, anti-virus websites (using RSS where possible). Be on the lookout for the latest happenings (phishing atacks, Trojans, viruses, etc.). Ask someone for help if you are not sure.
My two copper coins.

People should know... (1)

Slipgrid (938571) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493346)

People should understand that a computer can only do a few things. It will read data, write data, some i/o, and some processing.

I wish one of my clients could understand that an ip address is like a phone number. If he has a hosted and remote server running his email with one domain name, that he can't run a webserver at his office using the same domain name.

Boole's and Shannon's insight is that all information about a comptuer problem can be expressed using only two nouns. They are zero and one, or on and off, or high-voltage and low-voltage.

I wish people were not scared of their computer. Many people never learn to use a computer well, because they are afraid they will break it.

GUI does not equal Windows!

Updates are important!

IE does not equal Internet!

Many people can't tell when they are online and when they are not.

MS is not your friend... so stop giving them money

I think the public should know more about DRM issues and patent issues.

I could go on, but...

Use reliable sources for info and educate yourself (1)

digitaldc (879047) | more than 8 years ago | (#14493352)

1. Sounds sad to say, but in this day and age, you can't trust anybody just because what they say sounds intelligent or correct. Rather, you have to read about file and password security, computer protection, sharing data, and staying up to date with the latest trends and advances from reliable sources. Verify that what you are being told is true, preferrably from a knowledgeable human being.

2. Take a class in basic computing, using email, the internet, installing software and hardware and general computer maintenance. You can learn a lot from a knowledgeable instructor, and chances are you will have notes and books of what you have learned for future reference.

3. Read slashdot.com, cnet.com, search wikipedia and many other informative sites like this [lib.va.us] one.
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